Readers with a taste for historical fiction (or simply fine novels) could do no better than The Fencing Master by Arturo Perez-Reverte (born 1951). Though it has been several days since I’ve finished the book, it has been echoing through my head with the persistence complicit of a fine novel.
Perez-Reverte came to my attention first through his series of swashbucklers about Captain Alatriste, set in the 17th Century Spain. My taste for swashbucklers and meticulously researched historical fiction, mixed with the author’s reputation, led me to believe that there was a tasty dish in store for me. However, I must confess that I find the Alatriste novels to be very weak tea, indeed. Alatriste never comes to life as a character, and the novels lack plotting both deft and dense which is the hallmark of good swashbucklers.
So it was with some trepidation that I approached The Fencing Master, first published in 1988. This novel is not part of any ongoing series, and in it Perez-Reverte manages to create a tale both touching and chilling, complex in its machinations and simple in its humanity.
Don Jaime Astarloa is the fencing master of the title. The year is 1868 and the place is Madrid. Don Jaime’s place in the world is rapidly shrinking: the ascendance of revolvers and rifles have made the art of fencing obsolete and his aristocratic clients now use the foil for sport and exercise rather than on the field of honor.
Don Jaime is a true aesthete: the art of fencing is the center and core of his existence. Intertwined with that art are all of the things that make fencing his religion – honor, chivalry, elegance, justice and discipline. However, time has not been not been kind to the maestro. Working in the silent devotion of his craft, the world has largely passed him by. Not only is the sword becoming obsolete, but huge political forces are at work in Spain, deep and complex intrigues that could topple the monarchy.
Don Jaime spends much of his free time working on his monumental Treatise on the Art of Fencing, and spending time with a small circle of friends at the local café. He believes that his life is largely over, and that he is marking time (and saving money) for the day when he would descend into the care of some religious order that cares for the elderly.
All of that changes dramatically when a beautiful woman, Adela de Otero, comes to him for fencing lessons. At first Don Jaime is reluctant – teaching the art of fencing to a woman is simply not done – but when he learns of her already considerable prowess, he relents and the lessons begin.
From this simple premise, Perez-Reverte creates both a thrilling melodrama and a poignant meditation on change and the insularity of our lives. Though Don Jaime has lived beyond his time, he is a man of honor, of discipline, and chivalry. But what do these qualities mean in a world that no longer values them? And is Don Jaime a fool, an easily manipulated codger without a clue as to how the ‘real world’ works, or a hero who manages to live life by his own ethical and artistic lights?
Perhaps what is most affecting is Perez-Reverte’s generosity of spirit while writing about Don Jaime. This is an affecting portrait of a good man without the capabilities necessary to navigate a world increasingly ugly and corrupt. Here is Perez-Reverte describing his weekly café visit:
Fausto arrived with the toast. Don Jaime dunked his thoughtfully in his coffee. The interminable polemics in which his colleagues engaged bored him enormously, but their company was no better or worse than any other. The couple of hours he spent there each afternoon helped him salve his loneliness a little. For all their defects, their grumbling, and their bad-tempered ranting about every other living being, at least they gave one another the chance to give vent to their respective frustrations. Within that limited circle, each member found in the others the tacit consolation that his own failure was not an isolated fact but a thing shared to a greater or lesser measure by them all. That above all was what brought them together, keeping them faithful to their daily meetings. Despite their frequent disputes, their political differences, their disparate moods, the five felt a complex solidarity that, had it ever been expressed openly, would have been hotly denied by all of them but that might be likened to the huddling together for warmth of solitary creatures.
The Fencing Master is on par with the finest works of Dumas. Heady praise indeed, but if that will induce you to buy this book, then let it stand. You will not be disappointed.